Backwater medicine: Elephant poo tea

Trip Start Sep 26, 2010
Trip End Jun 10, 2011

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Flag of Botswana  ,
Monday, February 14, 2011

As an optional excursion on our overland trip, Adar and I travelled into the backwaters of the world's largest inland delta.  Here the Okavango river spreads to over 5800 square miles before evaporating, transpirating (evaporating from plants), or literally disappearing underground.  Travel is via mokoro, a dugout canoe made from the sausage tree named for its large hanging fruit.  A mokoro is about 14-16 feet long, a little over 2 feet wide and less than a foot deep.  It comfortably holds two passengers with gear and is driven or pushed through the shallow waters by a poler with a single very long stick.  It is similar to punting in England or Venice except without the fancy boat.

Our entire overland group choose to take this excursion and we all enjoyed two nights bush camping on a small island roughly a quarter days journey into the delta.  The mokoro trip was peaceful as we were poled through the delta along narrow lanes in the tall reeds.  The poler would set the pole and by leveraging against it would quickly and silently accelerate the canoe forward.  The canoe would then coast a great deal before the pole was picked up, brought forward, and again set.  The only sound was the occasional brush of the reeds against the hull and the splash-ploop of water as the pole exited and then reentered the water.   Birds were plentiful and their songs were thick and sweet in the air.  The water was clear and cool with an over abundance the tall, thin reeds.  As we were seated in the boat near waterline and the reeds grew about 4-5' above the water, often the only view was the narrow lane in front of us and the great blue sky above.  Every so often the lane would open to a large pool filled with water lilies and lily pads.  If you looked hard you would occasionally see small white frogs about the size of your thumb on the reeds.  Our poler was aptly named (or nicknamed) Arms and was exceedingly strong for his size.  His huge muscled arms were indeed impressive as was his skill as a poler.

Some highlights of this trip were a bushman's walk, attempting poling myself, and a sunset cruise.  The bushman's walk was very entertaining as our guide, a true local in the area, knew and was proud to share his extensive knowledge of bush medicine.  The funny part was that his communication skills were lacking which combined with his love of long winded story telling made for long periods of us in a bewildered state.  We tried to piece together what he was saying without laughing at his delivery or the meaning he was conveying when we finlly understood.  In English we have a tendency to say "mm" or "uh" when we pause mid sentence in thought.  Our guide did not pause but seemed to end every sentence with a long "mmmmmmmmmmmmm" sung as if he were enjoying a delicious dessert.  We were not sure if this mmmmm was for emphasis or was a thinking pause or had yet another meaning.  We did not ever find out.  The following is an example story and given just as we walked up to and stopped over a large mound of elephant feces:

"So.... (pause) ... when a woman has a baby in her belly, mmmmmmmmmmmmm, we are a long way from hospital, you know mmmmmmmmmmmmm,  a full days journey by boat and then a long bumpy jeep ride into town mmmmmmmmmmmmmmm.  So when the baby is ready to come but is not in the coming mmmmmm and woman wants the baby to come mmmmmmmmm we go out and find this" - at this point he reaches down and breaks off a large chunk of poo in his hands - " however it must be very fresh MMMMmmmmmmmmmmmm, even one day old is not good enough mmmmmmmmm, we first get water mmmmmmmmm, and make fire and take water and we puts it to boil in large pot over fire mmmmmmmmm, and we take this fresh poo and crush piece with hands into water and we mix it stirring well mmmmmmmmm, thens we gives to the woman and she drinks......".  This last part was said as he demonstrated the crushing technique with the dried poo in his hands.

The actual story was about twice as along as he explained more about each step, punctuating each thought with a long "mmmmmmmmm".  At the point in the story where we finally figured out the elephant poo tea was meant to induce labor we all smiled both in recognition and in disgust of the idea.  It probably works but cannot imagine that it is entirely pleasant.  Each story did not really have a beginning or end and all we knew when he started talking that it would be either odd or funny and that we would be listening for a long while to figure it out.

Another story was about how to cure bad luck and this time centered around a special type of termite mound and the precise process for first roasting the mound over fire and the preparation and drinking of the tea after the smoking mound had been pulverized with the root of wild sage.  Mmmmmmmmmmm.  It was entertaining as well as he wanted to first help us understand what he meant by bad luck and took a long while explaining that an example of bad luck was apparently spending all of your money on an expensive car only to have it break down after which your wife gets mad at you because you do not have any money for the expensive spare parts because you spent the rest of the money that you had on an expensive airplane which also broke down.  That is bad luck.  Mmmmmmmmmmmmm.  The smoking termite mound put at a specific place in your house and some of which was consumed in the form of a sage root tea additive was somehow supposed to rid you of the bad luck and subsequently fix the car and airplane.  Hmmmmmmmm.

The walk was incredible for another reason.  Typically on safari you are in a vehicle driving around with the animals sometimes distant and other times very close.  In all instances the animals see a car or truck rolling by and have gotten used to it to the point that they ignore it.  Here we were walking downwind and from the direction of the rising sun so that the animals could neither see us nor smell us.  They could only, if we made sufficient noise, hear us.  And when they did, it was clear that we were new and they were both curious and apprehensive.  Being on the ground, the same ground, that they were on was a very different, somewhat immersive feeling.  We were not just looking at them from a car, we were stalking them in their environment.  In a very real sense we were hunting them, trying to get as close as we could before they noticed us. 

We snuck up on a group of twenty something impala and small herd of ten to fifteen zebra who, when they finally saw one of the other small parties from our group, made a mad dash directly in front of us.  When they saw us so close after crossing our path they again startled but only ran out of stick throwing distance and then turned to inspect us.  Later we came up behind a mating herd (one male, several females - different than a bachelor herd of all males) of giraffe and a large group of water buffalo and zebra.  They walk and eat together as the giraffe are good lookouts with their long necks and good eyes and the zebras eat the sweet grass on bottom after the indiscriminate buffaloes remove the drier tasteless upper grass.  At one point a male giraffe stood and stared at us in curiosity as we stared back in marvel being on the same ground without the barrier of cage or car.   It was a neat experience.  In the end we saw a half dozen species of animal, day old elephant poo (still not fresh enough for labor inducing tea), and lion tracks indicating that both were within the area recently.

In the middle of the second day several of us tried our hand at poling the mokoros.  The flat canoes were stable such that balancing was not difficult, but applying power and steering both were a bit challenging.  You had to stand at the very back of the canoe and position both the pole and your body to leverage against it at the correct angle to steer and propel the canoe forward.  After a while it was fairly easy to go straight quickly and smoothly but turning remained challenging.  I poled Adar and I over to the local "swimming hole" navigating several turns and narrow sections before enjoying the cool waters and our first bath in a couple of days.  A couple others in our group did equally as well and it gave us an appreciation of the grace in which our polers moved us through the backwaters of the delta.

Another highlight, the sunset cruise, took us around an island and into the delta where we watched the sun dip into the horizon as we peacefully floated in the still water.  Birds sang, Arms made himself a water lily head dress, we played with one of the tiny white frogs, and we all enjoyed the fading light and the smooth gliding of the mokoros through the cool backwaters of the delta.  Life is sweet, this trip is awesome, very happy to be here.   Mmmmmmmmmmmmm.
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Lia on

Mmmmmmmm...I think the mmmmmmmmmm was for emphasis and to give you time to really take in and think about what Arms was saying. Really enjoyed this entry, guys. I can feel the peace of this part of your journey in your words.

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